:Left to right: Marcel Spears, Heidi Armbruster and Brenna Coates in "At the Old Place." Photo by Jim Carmody
Home is where the pity party is. Or so it goes for Angie, a woman of creeping middle age who awash in doubts and self-recriminations abandons her career and her husband and retreats to the empty home in Virginia left behind by her recently passed mother --with whom, of course, she has long been estranged. That estrangement is just a percentage of the psycho-emotional morass in which Angie finds herself. In Rachel Bonds’ At the Old Place, a world-premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse directed by Jaime Castaneda, the sort of internal crises and personal assessments Angie (Heidi Armbruster) confronts have been dramatized many times before, by many writers across multiple mediums. Bonds’ narrative twist, and what separates her play from an 80-minute wallow, is the presence of two fun-loving young people, each troubled in his/her own way, who bring to the surface the emotion that At the Old Place otherwise lacks and which Angie seems unable to harness.
Will (Marcel Spears, in a very natural performance) and Jolene (Brenna Coates) have been hanging out on the front lawn of Angie’s mother’s house long before she arrived on the scene. Jolene thrives on f-bombs and spiked Coke, but she really is a vulnerable soul. Will, sensitive and even more vulnerable, is the most likable – the only likable? – character in the story. But each manages to affect Angie to the point that she girds herself to make an assured decision about her life and her future. (The play’s other character, a colleague of Angie’s from the college where they teach with whom she’s been in a relationship, makes one appearance – “courting” her intellectually as only a dyed-in-the-wool academic can.)
For all its angst emanating from central figure Angie, At the Old Place is at times frustratingly low key. Its liveliest scene might be the drinking game she, Will and Jolene play, even if it feels like Aunt So-and-So trying to fit in with the kids.
One undeniable: the family house designed by Lauren Helpern, with its wide front porch, pitched roof and lemon-yellow light aglow in the windows, is so warm and homey you’ll long to move right in – even if it means spending some time trying to cheer Angie up. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/19/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat